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Utah animal lovers wade into disasters

Published September 17, 2006 12:44 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The tension was palpable.

It was Sept. 7, the first day commercial flights had touched down in Beirut since a monthlong war had erupted between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. Travelers swarmed the airport.

Richard Crook, along with a Chilean veterinarian and vet tech, carved his way through the excited crowds carting 175 pounds of cat food and basic veterinary supplies.

Crook, rapid response manager for the Kanab-based Best Friends Animal Society, was a scout, sent to gauge the danger and feasibility of airlifting 300 cats and dogs from Beirut back to Best Friends' 3,000-acre no-kill animal sanctuary in southern Utah.

He worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and had experience rescuing animals in horrific conditions - he was prepared for this.

Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that this was something special, something big. As he ventured into Beirut, past bombed bridges, crumbled roads and deserted buildings, Crook knew what lay ahead would shape the future of humane societies in Lebanon, as well as his own organization.

'Noah's Ark'

As the afternoon sun blanketed Angel Canyon in Kanab, a handful of people at Best Friends plotted.

With their backs to a wall-mounted flat screen television tuned to CNN, Director Michael Mountain and CEO Paul Berry concocted a plan: send a cargo plane - a "Noah's Ark" - to Beirut to airlift 300 furry refugees from the war-torn area and find suitable homes for them in the U.S.

Moments earlier, they had shuffled out of a meeting with evangelical leaders, whom they are urging to incorporate the concept of kindness to animals into their spiritual teachings.

"We feel the work of Best Friends is a spiritual endeavor, a work of the soul," Mountain would later say.

At that moment, however, there was a more pressing issue. The United Nations had brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. The bombing had stopped. If Best Friends was going to slip into Beirut, now was its chance.

Lebanon's only animal organization, Beirut for Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA), had sounded a call for help. During the war, Lebanon's civilian infrastructure was damaged - including its animal shelters - and its population scattered.

Thousands of family pets, as well as farm and zoo animals, were left behind to fend for themselves. BETA volunteers shuttled 150 dogs from a damaged shelter to a former pig farm outside of Beirut - where irritated neighbors have since threatened to poison them - and 150 cats into two small apartments in the city.

As bombs continued to rain down, the volunteers ventured out day and night to collect animals frightened and confused by the deafening explosions. The rescues weren't easy. Electricity was spotty, gasoline scarce. Many of the animals were injured, sick or feral.

BETA's cache of food and medical supplies dwindled, even as the number of animals they rescued grew. Their reports to Best Friends became increasingly grim.

The women stumbled upon the carcasses of cats, dogs, goats and sheep run over by villagers fleeing the hills. A donkey in the village of Srifa brayed desperately, its front leg tangled in toppled fencing.

Horses ambled the streets and a cow foraged in an abandoned kitchen for food. In Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah fighter gave a stray dog his last can of tuna. He told a BETA volunteer, "If I showed mercy on the dog, maybe God will show mercy on me."

The BETA volunteers - a small group of Lebanese women who share a passion for animals - needed help. And fast.

Animals suffer, too

While Mountain and Berry jokingly call the $300,000 rescue operation "Paws for Peace," their mission is serious.

Not only are they setting out to save the lives of animals abandoned during the war, but in the process, they are sending an important message: "War, like hurricanes in this country, exact a terrible toll on the animals, as well as they do on the people," Mountain said.

Best Friends' work in the Middle East is gaining momentum. As early as Sept. 6, it had received $145,351 in donations, of which it had spent $58,322 for direct care of animals in the region, according to its Web site. By Sept. 16, its donations had climbed to $182,000.

Some 10,000 Best Friends members signed a petition imploring the Israeli government to lift its land, sea and air blockade so that much-needed assistance could get to the animals.

Careful not to take sides in the conflict, Best Friends also funnels thousands of dollars to Hakol Chai, the Israeli sister charity of Alexandria, Va.-based Concern for Helping Animals in Israel.

Nina Natelson, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the money helped pay for 12 tons of food parceled out every night in the most heavily bombed areas of northern Israel. Prior to that, many of the displaced animals had survived by sipping water from air conditioning units and foraging for food in trash bins.

Kindness revolution

In Beirut, Crook's average work day ranges from 12 to 20 hours. Sometimes he doesn't sleep at all.

His day begins with arranging rides with one of the BETA women, who juggle jobs with their volunteer work. Crook won't leave his hotel, only blocks from a Palestinian refugee camp, without them.

"I don't feel safe enough to roam the city without one of the BETA girls with me," he said. "They know the area, they know how to handle the locals' curiosity with us. They usually tell them we are Canadians or Australian. If they knew we were Americans, it would be a problem."

His first stop: the dog shelter on the outskirts of Beirut, where he tries to wrap up his work by 6 p.m. so as to not stir up the dogs during the evening hours.

Next, he heads to the cat apartments, where he'll work late into the night inoculating and documenting the felines in preparation for their 10-hour trans-Atlantic journey in the belly of a jumbo jet.

Then there are the meetings sprinkled throughout the day with airport officials and the mayor of Mount Lebanon to finalize details and paperwork to make the airlift happen.

Since arriving 10 days ago, Crook has gone on several rescues with the BETA women. On one, he freed a dog, its neck bound with a 4-foot cable. As he attempted to corral the pooch, locals congregated to taunt him. "If you help the animal, you stink," they said.

"A good majority of the people here do not view the animals as having any value whatsoever," Crook said.

While many consider Best Friends' mission magnanimous - a couple of members have suggested the nonprofit should win the Noble Peace Prize - the rescue workers have been criticized by the Lebanese people, some of whom suffer plights not unlike those of the starving cats and dogs wandering the streets.

One woman approached a BETA worker who was attempting to rescue a dog and asked her to take her two children.

Another man yelled, "People are dying and you are caring for the dog! What would you do if I shot this dog now?"

The BETA team later returned for the same dog, and was able to convince its family to surrender him after they offered the family food, supplies for their children and $200.

Crook doesn't distinguish between humanitarian aid for animals and people. In his mind, the two are inextricably linked.

"I do feel this is about people - helping people help the animals - in an effort to create a kindness revolution," he said.

Refugees in need of homes

In coming weeks, Best Friends will fly the 300 cats and dogs back to the U.S. The animals will be refugees in their own right, fleeing a country roiled by conflict to the peace of the Best Friends sanctuary, nestled in the heart of Angel Canyon.

In Utah, meanwhile, the animal group is preparing for the onslaught of critters, building temporary shelters to house them until they are adopted. As of this week, 21 dogs had been adopted in advance, while none of the cats have homes yet, said Barbara Williamson, a Best Friends spokeswoman.

Mountain, one of the original founders of Best Friends, said he'll be at the airport to greet them as they step paw on American soil for the first time.







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